The term "homeless" is to a great extent a misnomer. Some of the individuals in the subways who are folded into this category may have access to private spaces in which to sleep or keep their belongings. They may, however, suffer from addictions, mental disabilities, or extreme poverty. Not all of them panhandle. Some have jobs, and some receive government support. The subway system provides them with shelter or with social and financial contacts. For clarity's sake, I continue to use the term "homeless" in its undifferentiated sense.
Subway homelessness has a history. Destitute New Yorkers have slept underground at least since the Great Depression. 1 During the 1980s their numbers increased dramatically because of major disorder, produced in part by the Reagan administration's attempts to dismantle the social welfare system created during the Great Depression; the failure of New York governors Carey and Cuomo to provide adequate community-based services to deinstitutionalized mentally challenged New Yorkers; the city council's resistance to passing legislation banning both the warehousing of apartments and the demolition of singleroom occupancy units; and the Koch administration's reluctance to find alternatives to the warehousing of people in dangerous, costly public shelters.
Faced with this growing crisis, Mayor Ed Koch revived LaGuardia's campaign to restore order by eliminating itinerant activity in general and homeless people in particular, only without demonstrating LaGuardia's concern for the poor. Koch in effect drew up the blue-